Back in 1993, the guards' union was a leading funder of the campaign for Proposition 184, the initiative to create the Three Strikes law. (After the initiative passed, the Assembly passed the law that took effect in 1994.) Eight years later, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is sponsoring a bill to put Three Strikes reform on this November's ballot. She argues the nation's strictest Three Strikes law has managed to survive this long because of the California prison guards.
"They're essential to it," Goldberg says. "First of all they give an enormous number of legislators donations in their campaigns. We, including myself, seek their support."
The CCPOA gave two million dollars to legislative campaigns in each of the last two election cycles - including six-figure donations to several Assembly leaders. Even Jackie Goldberg got $5,000 from the union for her 2000 election campaign. She opposes private prisons, as does the union, and she's pro-labor. But she's troubled by what she sees as the union's conflict of interest on sentencing issues.
"You know, I support the correctional officers' union, their right to organize, to decent pay and decent working conditions. I find it not appropriate, in my humble opinion, for them to try to make sure that the prison population stays large - if that's what in fact they're doing."
It's not, says the CCPOA's Vice President, Lance Corcoran.
"I can't say it any more plain. I mean, I'll give you a copy of the purpose of the organization. 'Promote and enhance the correctional profession and protect the welfare of those engaged in it.'"
And to advocate in the political arena for certain kinds of policies?
"Well, I think that's part of it," Corcoran says. "I think that's part of the entire mix."
The union's activism on crime policy is no different from that of, say, teachers' unions, who lobby on education issues, Corcoran says. If teachers know about the needs of students, prison guards are experts on criminals. It's for that reason that guards and crime victims have a "natural kinship," according to union leaders. Both feel, first-hand, the damage that criminals do. "And just because an individual is sentenced to confinement, [that] doesn't mean that they haven't stopped victimizing individuals," says Corcoran. "Matter of fact, we now become, many times, the victims of their actions."
The notion that prison guards walk "the toughest beat in the state" has been the focus of a CCPOA public relations campaign in recent years. In one of several videos commissioned by the union and aired as infomercials on state cable channels, guards at the Corcoran maximum-security prison tell of being assaulted by inmates without reason or warning.
"You're constantly on the lookout because inmates are trying to spit in your face or trying to throw feces on you," one guard says. Another talks of riots erupting at a moment's notice.
"[Prison guards] see, unfortunately, the worst side of human nature day in and day out," says Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "I think that skews their impressions."
Having suggested that the union works to keeps the prisons full in order to protect its membership and power, Goldberg concedes that that self-interest appears to coincide with the union leaders' sincere beliefs on criminal justice policy. Goldberg says she's convinced that CCPOA leaders genuinely think it's in society's interests to keep repeat criminals behind bars for 25 years to life - even those who commit relatively minor third strikes.
"I think it's unfair to say that they're just trying to make sure they have a job next year," says Goldberg. "I don't believe that. But I do believe that they have a skewed sense of reality."
Given their formidable power, Goldberg says, the union and its lobbyists "create an environment in which policymakers lose sight of simple ideas like the punishment should fit the crime."
The CCPOA's critics say, in effect, to state policymakers: Ignore them. They're the prison guards.
The union says to state leaders: You'd better listen to us. We're the prison guards.
The battle goes on in Sacramento and across California.